Cost and red tape may slow moves by the King County Council to expand and enhance emergency shelters, causing frustration and heartburn in councilmembers and the advocacy community alike.
A report to the King County Council estimated that doubling the capacity of a 50-bed shelter at 420 Fourth Ave. and beefing up services offered there to include meals, showers, case management and 24-hour operations could cost $4.7 million in capital costs with ongoing operating expenses of over $1 million a year.
Improving Harborview Hall, an eight-story dormitory building, so that only the bottom floor could be used to house 100 people a night or operate a day center for households would also be expensive. The emergency shelter option alone would cost $2.19 million, with ongoing expenses at $544,083 per year. The day shelter option would cost $828,281 per year, and an enhanced model would top $1 million.
Both series of improvements would take time: Enhancements to existing operations at the 420 Fourth Ave. site would shut the building down for between 15 and 18 months. Basic improvements to the Harborview Hall building will take seven to 10 months, and transforming it into an enhanced shelter operation would take between 17 and 25 months.
The estimates overwhelm the $6 million the King County Council set aside for the shelters. Councilmembers earmarked $2.5 million for the Harborview site and $3.5 million for the Fourth Avenue building. Another $1 million would go to shelters in other parts of King County outside of Seattle.
Adherence to zoning and building codes drives much of the cost, to the point that county staff is exploring modular shelters that could be deployed on publicly held land to get around the requirements.
“That’s why it costs so much money to start those shelters,” said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, an advocacy organization. “It’s not the money it costs to run them, staff them, provide running water and lights, it’s the money it costs to make the physical plant up to code. Some of that is necessary, and some of it needs to be rethought.”
The difference in cost between running a night-only emergency shelter compared to an around-the-clock enhanced shelter is extreme, primarily because the use would trigger upgrades to the building and other requirements that cost a lot of money. Flexibility from those requirements would lower costs and expand options for potential shelters.
It’s a rare point of agreement between the advocacy community and King County Councilmember Cathy Lambert, who expressed her concerns about teenagers sleeping outside because the rules prohibited them from using a serviceable county building for housing. Anthony Wright, director of the county’s Facilities Management Division, said that he had a list of code restrictions that could be relaxed in the name of the homelessness crisis.
“I’d love to get any and all prudent, reasonable exceptions,” Wright said.
Councilmembers were divided on the prospect of modular units. Staff is launching a process to gather more information from the private sector about the proposal, with the aim of putting the project out to bid as soon as October.
“We’re in a time of great need, and we need to move quickly to take advantage of the benefits of modular structures,” said Mark Ellerbrook, manager of the Regional Housing and Community Development branch of the Human Services Department.
Councilmember Rod Dembowski did not seemed moved by the argument, and raised concerns about potentially moving money away from enhancing existing buildings to gamble on an untried policy.
“I’m reluctant to reprogram those dollars on a pilot program for modular structures,” Dembowski said. “We have to get going; winter is coming.”
The fate of the Fourth Avenue site remains uncertain. It was slated to close at the end of June, and even the Salvation Army, which runs the site, didn’t know if funding for the program would be extended. It’s not clear that there are additional resources to keep the doors open past the end of July.
Eisinger urged the council to preserve that shelter capacity at least through the end of the year, and to explore other options to open up new shelter beds.
“This is not a zero-sum situation,” she wrote. “Closing a 50 person shelter to open another shelter for 50, 75 or 100 people is not a serious programmatic or policy response to a crisis of this scope.”
What advocates don’t want to see is another situation like that which faced Operation Nightwatch when the city of Seattle repurposed the Pearl Warren building for the Navigation Center, a 24-hour enhanced shelter model. The decision displaced the program and its 75 shelter beds to make room for the Navigation Center to provide space for 75 high-need individuals. It opened on July 12, more than seven months behind schedule, leaving Operation Nightwatch out in the cold.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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